New Guy at NYT

Having had its fling with William Kristol, The New York Times now appears to have settled down with a competent, rational, interesting conservative columnist. He’s Ross Douthat, about whom I know little beyond the form and substance of his first column for the paper. Off that, I’d say he’s pretty damn good.

He makes a very strong argument that Republicans made a terrible mistake last year, nominating John McCain for President. Well, you say. What’s remarkable about that? What’s remarkable is what he says they should have done instead. The GOP, says Mr. Douthat, should have nominated — brace yourselves — Dick Cheney.

A strong argument for Dick Cheney as President? Have you gone mad, SOG?

Wait, wait. He does not make a case for Cheney as President. In fact, he acknowledges that Cheney would have lost. (So would ANY Republican have lost, and to a young, relatively untried black candidate. Think about that, then explain — to yourself and to me — just what makes the Beltway Bloviation Bunch take seriously any of the gut-wrenchingly inept Bush Administration flunkies plumping and preening on the talk shows and editorial pages.)

But about Douthat and his proposal for a retro Cheney candidacy. Here’s part of it; you might be interested in or even persuaded by the whole thing.

As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.

If a Cheney defeat could have been good for the Republican Party; a Cheney campaign could have been good for the country. The former vice-president’s post-election attacks on Obama are bad form, of course, under the peculiar rules of Washington politesse. But they’re part of an argument about the means and ends of our interrogation policy that should have happened during the general election and didn’t – because McCain wasn’t a supporter of the Bush-era approach, and Obama didn’t see a percentage in harping on the topic.

He wasn’t alone. A large swath of the political class wants to avoid the torture debate. The Obama administration backed into it last week, and obviously wants to back right out again.

But the argument isn’t going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just “look forward,” as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.

Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.

But better if this debate had happened during the campaign season. And better, perhaps, if Cheney himself had been there to have it out.

Obviously (I hope) I have serious differences with Douthat. But it’s such a relief, not simply that Kristol has been dumped, but that a literate, coherent, and challenging writer has replaced him.

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